Thursday is for Theological Terminology:
The Study of Specialized Words relating to Theology

by Ron F. Hale, Minister of Missions, West Jackson Baptist Church, Jackson, TN


Total Depravity or Total Inability

Bernd Brandes was a person with a passion for pain.

This bizarre mania caused him to respond to an internet ad placed by another German man by the name of Armin Meiwes.  This spine-chilling internet ad declared that Meiwes was seeking “a young, well built man who wants to be eaten.”

Brandes responded and became the menu of Meiwes. This modern day cannibal was later sentenced to serve eight years and six months in prison. How would you like being the sleepy-eyed cell mate of Meiwes?

This story reveals the ever-present wickedness of mankind, that we are not deprived but depraved sinners. Forever and a day each of us will always fall short of the glory of God due to this sin nature.

Under the statement on Man, the following sentences taken from the Baptist Faith and Message, 2000 enlighten us on our depravity:

By his free choice man sinned against God and brought sin into the human race. Through the temptation of Satan man transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original innocence whereby his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin. Therefore, as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation.

Throughout God’s Word, we see man’s devious and depraved nature has an explicit bias toward evil resulting in our certainty to sin; therefore, it cannot be escaped since our human nature has been corrupted by sin.

The Apostle Paul writes about our sin nature in Romans 7:18-19 (NASB).

For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want.

Inquiring theological minds may ask whether this depravity is partial, total, or radical?  Most Southern Baptists will say that our depravity is “total,” but it does not mean total inability or radical depravity, which means the sinner is so spiritually bankrupt that he can do nothing in responding to God.

In seeking to help us avoid extreme Calvinism’s view of total inability, Dr. Norman Geisler says,

Extreme Calvinists believe that a totally depraved person is spiritually dead.  By “spiritual death” they mean the elimination of all human ability to understand or respond to God, not just a separation from God.  Further, the effects of sin are intensive (destroying the ability to receive salvation), not just extensive (corrupting the ability to receive salvation).  While many extreme Calvinists would deny the implications, the following chart illustrates the differences:

Moderate Calvinist View Extreme Calvinist View
Corruption of Good Destruction of Good
Effects of Sin Are Extensive Effects of Sin Are Intensive
Born With Propensity to Sin Born With Necessity to Sin
Human Will Is Diminished Human Will Is Destroyed

Norman Geisler, Chosen But Free, 2d ed. (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2001), 57-58.

While many Non-Calvinists would join with a Moderate Calvinist like Dr. Geisler in teaching “total depravity,” they would not misinterpret this doctrine by teaching total inability or extreme depravity.

James Montgomery Boice and Philip Ryken advocate the extreme Calvinist view as they write:

In this sad and pervasively sinful state we have no inclination to seek God, and therefore cannot seek him or even respond to the gospel when it is presented to us.  In our unregenerate state, we do not have free will so far as “believing on” or “receiving” Jesus Christ as Savior is concerned.  In fact, such is our slavery to sin that we cannot understand our need of Christ until God first gives us spiritual understanding.  Even faith must come as a gift, because prior to the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit our depravity renders us impotent to cooperate with God’s saving grace.

James Montgomery Boice and Phillip G. Ryken, The Doctrines of Grace (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002), 30).

Most Southern Baptist pastors and lay teachers reject the teaching of Total Inability. In most pulpits as in most classrooms it is taught and preached that man is totally depraved, but that God, in His sovereign will, endowed each of us with the moral ability to hear the gospel and freely respond in faith, or reject the love and grace of God.

While God brings conviction of sin through the Holy Spirit, He also shows us our need to turn from our sins (repentance) and turn to (believe) the Lord Jesus Christ.  As the Holy Scriptures implore us to repent, turn, receive, believe, trust, and come, we surrender to God in repentance and faith and are born again by the regenerating power of God, thus we are saved by the glorious grace of God!